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When the subject of a book in a "Lives" series is as compelling as Napoleon Bonaparte, and the reviewer solicited is a history buff, the expectation is for a great read. A comparable read that immediately comes to mind, in that category, is Christian Meier's exhaustive Caesar (Basic Books) which I've mentioned in these pages before. The brilliance in that book only highlights why it would be difficult to recommend to a serious history buff (let alone historian) or a lover of biographies, Paul Johnson's Napoleon. I'll get to why I think this "Lives" book is flawed first.
Johnson, an acclaimed historian, whose best-sellers include Modern Times, A History of the American People and The History of Christianity, could be accused of merely "phoning-in" this so-called biography and walking away with his ducats. The most informative part of this tome is it's closing "Further Reading" section, where Johnson recommends other books about his subject that I suspect would give greater insight than he was capable of producing in this work. He admits as much in the text, saying that he finds the mind of Bonaparte inexplicable. What he has attempted to do, rather than get the reader closer to the subject of this biography, is promulgate his own thesis that:
- Bonaparte was the mold from which much of modern totalitarian was cast;
- That the British Empire should be commended for, single-handedly (in his mind) and consistently, recognizing the malignance of Bonapartism; and
- That any celebration of the leader and general is misguided and uninformed.
Neither this review nor my own convictions are meant to support the notion of Napoleon Bonaparte as heroic. BUT I would contend that the purpose of both history and biography is to put human features on those figures who have changed the course of our lives; to cut away the hagiography (or vilification) and begin to understand the motivations, strengths and weaknesses of those individuals to inform our own behavioral, social and political responses. If you take this reasoning as true, then Mr. Johnson's book proves a great disappointment.
That is the inherent and fatal flaw of this book and why this reviewer cannot recommend that you spend your $19.95 (USD) or $28.99 (Canadian) to purchase it if you mean to add a good biographer of Napoleon Bonaparte to your shelves.
But I had other problems with this book, as well. I had to ask myself why someone writing about Bonaparte, considered one of history's great military leaders, would omit to include descriptions of all but a single battle (the defeat at Waterloo)? Why are this biographer's descriptions of Bonaparte's military strategy and tactics cursory, at best, non-existant, in a less charitable view? The only answer this reviewer could provide is that such details stood in the way of the author's three-point thesis.
Worse, what we learn about Bonaparte in this book, besides details like the date and place of his birth, and a sketch of his family background, is negligible.
I could not help but wonder how Mr. Johnson could ignore that one of Napoleon Bonaparte's great foibles was that he was a product of the military academy of the Ancien Regime and thus must, of necessity, proceed from its precepts. Rather than be truly visionary and create the new world order that his propagandists believed was his destiny, Bonaparte was doomed to replicate the hierarchical structure that had produced him. The life, and the decision to create an Empire he could serve, even with himself as Emperor, would appear to make more sense when these facts are considered. Johnson never does.
Even if one gives Mr. Johnson the indulgence of missing the military facts, it is difficult to do the same with the socio-historical ones.
The work itself, which runs a mere 187 pages sans the "Further Readings" tack-on, thus presents little challenge or inspiration/insight for the serious reader. The words "Cliff Notes" come to mind.
There are two points upon which Johnson must be credited in his effort:
Firstly, his recognition that the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte did provide a template for both Total War as we came to know it in the 20th century and the consolidation of state power around a personality. I don't agree with the conclusions he draws flowing from this insight, but his central argument is valid.
Secondly, that someone who was so innovative with land-based military theory, so meticulous and visionary, should completely miss the importance of naval power is almost inscrutable. Mr. Johnson notes this, but gives a cursory answer to the puzzle.
Both the disaster of the expedition to Egypt and how Bonaparte could miss the importance of France's holdings in North America --- up to and including selling the Louisiana Territory (an area that comprises 13 states today) to the United States for a song --- are historical blunders that deserve more emphasis than they are given in this book.
Knowing the fickleness and thin-skin of Marketing Departments, and hoping they can take into the account my more laudatory review of the Victor Pelevin work a few months back, I can only hope that Penguin Putnam will continue to keep us on their mailing list after this essay.
Recommendation: Take a pass.
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